Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison at this month's APEC summit in Papua New Guinea [Fazry Ismail via Reuters]

Australia’s conservative government said on Wednesday it would not sign a UN pact on migration because the agreement would undermine its existing immigration policies.

The UN Global Compact for Migration was agreed on in July following more than a year of negotiations and is supposed to help open up legal migration and better manage the movement of people around the world.

It is due to be adopted next month although the US and a handful of European countries have already rejected it.

“We believe the Compact is inconsistent with our well-established policies and not in Australia’s interest,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement posted on his website.

Australia’s immigration policy already promotes “safe, orderly and regular migration”, the statement continued. Adopting the pact “would risk encouraging illegal entry to Australia and reverse … hard-won successes in combating the people-smuggling trade”.

Morrison, who became prime minister in an internal party battle in August, was one of the architects of Australia’s harsh immigration policy, which detains asylum-seekers who try to reach the country by boat on remote Pacific islands.

While the policy has led to a decline in people-smuggling, hundreds of people are now being held in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Some have been there for years.

The United Nations and human rights groups at home and abroad have criticised the approach and the government has been under pressure over the deteriorating health of the people, many of them children, imprisoned on the islands.

The US has already rejected the UN Compact, and a number of populist governments in Europe, including Poland and Hungary, have also said they will not sign it.

Morrison’s government is focussing on immigration ahead of elections due to take place in May next year.

Opinion polls show the opposition Labor Party well ahead of Morrison’s Liberals.

Earlier this week, Morrison announced he would also seek to slash legal migration into Australia, from the current official cap of 190,000 people per year to about 160,000.

He said the cut was needed to counter worsening congestion in the nation’s main cities.

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